What Dancers Can Teach Us About Foot Pain and Care
“I think I handled it all and somehow I’m still dancing,” she adds with a laugh. “Although it’s not always easy.”
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With summer on the way, our feet are facing a host of challenges, from increased activity – we’re outdoors more, walking, running and hiking – to minimalist footwear. Once-protected toes and arches can be liberated in thin flats, sandals, and flip-flops, but these can all put our hard-working lower limbs at risk.
Imagine facing these challenges while pushing your feet beyond normal human capacity, because your livelihood depends on it. This is the dancer’s dilemma.
Barring debilitating pain, dancers usually cannot stop working because of sore feet or blisters. They deal with foot issues on a daily basis, relentless physical demands in shoes that can be ultra-confining, flimsy or non-existent.
As a result, dancers tend to be very hands-on when it comes to foot care, with hard-earned wisdom on injuries, shoes, exercises, cures for everything from friction to funk, and ways to transform feet. pharmacy articles into therapeutic tools.
I recently spoke with a number of dancers to see what lessons they learned about taking care of their feet. And what they can teach us as we head into the day.
“As dancers, a big part of our psychology is about overcoming pain,” says Burke. “It’s a lot of our culture.” But to cushion the blows, her first requirement is the maintenance of the arch of the foot, in particular because she has flat feet. She suffered from leg pain as a child because her flat feet allowed her ankles to roll inward, putting strain on her knees. Support inserts solved the problem.
“I’m never in a shoe that doesn’t have a supportive measure,” Burke says. “I just won’t.”
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For many dancers, flip flops and ballet flats are also a definite no.
“Apartment shoes? Oh, my God,” says New York City Ballet star Tiler Peck. “Our physical therapists are constantly telling us to make sure you have arch support.” She uses drugstore inserts in her sneakers and complements them with a heel lifter made by AliMed, a medical products supplier.
“They give your calves a rest,” says Peck. “It’s just a little semi-circle thing that lifts your heel a bit.”
Burke is also a fan of cheap inserts and uses Dr. Scholl’s in his dress shoes. For her tap dancing, she likes SuperFeet, a brand for runners.
“The impact we feel as tap dancers is not that different from a runner pounding the pavement,” she says. The insoles for low arches “have a slim profile, so they fit perfectly in my tap shoes. They are not so much rooted in comfort as in foot correction.
After breaking his big toe by knocking it on his coffee table, Burke never goes barefoot. She wears Adidas “Adissage” slides throughout the house; otherwise, strictly stable closed shoes. “Because if you don’t deal with the pain now, later you might have problems,” she says.
New tap shoes can cause blisters. To avoid them, Burke sticks squares of Elastikon elastic tape over her heels “like a bandage,” she says. “He does wonders.” If she catches a blister, she covers it with Compeed hydrocolloid blister pads. Since the tap shoes are getting sweaty and funky, she airs them out on a windowsill and stuffs them with charcoal bags made for the shoes.
Burke also wipes her feet with a baby wipe “to soothe, so as not to offend anyone,” she says, and every night she dips them in a bucket of warm water and salts. Epsom.
What would dancers be without the humble mop bucket? If there’s one takeaway, it’s this: Soak your feet. Religiously. American Ballet Theater corps de ballet member Kathryn Boren orders bags of ice from Door Dash to be delivered to her apartment after shows. Takes out the bucket, between the ice and she buries her legs up to the calf.
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I spoke to her on her first day off in four weeks of dancing. She had been on stage every night, for ABT’s “Swan Lake,” “Don Quixote” and other ballets during the company’s summer season at the Metropolitan Opera House.
As a result, her feet feel “terrible,” Boren says. “That’s why it’s a really good time to talk about it.” She has just recovered from the worst foot problem she has ever had: a painfully infected corn between her toes, due to the friction of the toe bones caused by sweating and swollen feet in pointe shoes. She missed a few rehearsals and the corn got better, then it popped again after “Swan Lake”, making the rest of her performances a torture. (Dancers aren’t the only ones affected; any loose-fitting shoe can cause corns.)
Antibiotics and Epsom salt finally cured Boren’s foot. To keep the site clean from city filth, she eschews open-toed shoes, preferring to cover her toes in sterile gauze and tuck them into sneakers.
“I would choose a white sneaker over anything” for off-peak hours, she says. Or trendy sneakers, like the colorful Vejas her boyfriend recently gave her. Another go-to is a flat slipper.
“That’s about as far as my dress shoes go,” Boren says. “I had to wear a pair of high heels for my sister’s wedding, and I hated every minute of them. For me and most of my friends, they hurt more than spikes. I think it’s awkward pressure and posture, and your calves don’t stretch.
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Peck recently tried his luck with a sporty sandal called the Sorel X Prana Explorer Blitz Stride, featuring a wedge sole and thick padding. “I struggle in the summer to find something as comfortable as a sneaker,” says Peck, “but these are the most comfortable things I’ve ever worn.”
If a pain flares up, she likes T-Relief Arnica +12, a homeopathic cream, to soothe joints and muscles, and a dab of Orajel, the toothache cream, can help numb an angry corn. But her “main secret,” Peck says, is regular pedicures. Her dad, a college football coach, taught her the importance of blunt nail clipping to prevent internal growth, so that’s reason #1. And you can’t beat aesthetics.
“I don’t know if I have the most beautiful feet in the world,” Peck says. “But people see them and they’re like, you’re a dancer – you should have really ugly feet!”
Jordan Spry, assistant artistic director of Step Afrika, is also a fan of pedicures. After a hard-hitting performance of the percussive art of stepping, “it’s one of my favorite things,” he says. “Somebody roll me over and massage my feet – it might be the last place we think of getting massages, but the dancers love them.”
Especially steppers, because there are no dance shoes made specifically for them. Step Afrika dancers sometimes perform barefoot, but most of the time they wear dress shoes with stiff soles, “like you might wear to church,” says Spry. “We prioritize sound over comfort, which can be difficult.”
Spry fell in love with walking after running track at Howard University. He discovered some similarities: the intense physique, the need to freeze his feet like he had done after track competitions. But no personalized shoes? “On the track, you are often on the same surface and there are shoes for the runners. But since there are no walking shoes, it’s just a matter of finding what works best. And I find that as a dancer, I’m more in tune with taking care of my body than I ever was as an athlete.
The dancers are fully aware of the interdependence of all their parts. This is perhaps the most important lesson we can learn: often, sore feet aren’t everything.
“It’s all connected,” says Ashwini Ramaswamy, a performer and choreographer with the Minneapolis-based Ragamala Dance Company, which specializes in Bharatanatyam, a classical Indian dance performed barefoot.
Dance “is extremely related to yoga; they have common origins,” says Ramaswamy. “This idea of mind, body and spirit, where movement aligns in the body, with energy going through the whole body – it happens all the time.”
This art form taught him that happy feet stem from paying attention to the larger musculoskeletal system. To help her feet, she exercises her glutes and outer leg muscles. The simple act of stepping up and down on the ball of the foot works the outside of the leg, and forearm side planks strengthen the tendon under the arch of the foot as well as the leg muscles. Exercises that work the inner and outer thighs help support the knees, which can be strained by misalignment on the feet.
If her feet complain after dancing, Ramaswamy likes to roll them on a bottle of frozen water. “But I find I have to do it less and less now that I’m working on these other muscles,” she says.
Foot health “isn’t just about the feet,” the dancer explains. “It’s about other parts of the body and keeping everything in good shape.”